Solo Sniffing & The Science of Smell

Solo Sniffing & The Science of Smell

pandemic-proofing our 2020 hop selection process. 

By Jacqueline Beard, Quality / Sensory Manager

Our friends and family on the hop farm spend all year preparing for September, when all the hops in the Yakima Valley are harvested. That’s 80% of the US’ hop harvest in just one month (give or take a week)! 

Here at the brewery, we also spend a lot of time preparing for “hop selection” during the harvest, which in most years brings all the craft brewers to Yakima like bees to a flower. During selection, brewers “select” or choose the specific hops that we’ll brew with all year long from this year’s hop crop.

If you’ve seen photos of brewers with their noses deep into a handful of hops (like the photo below from last year's selection), then you’ll know what this process looks like normally, not during a pandemic. If not, let me paint you a picture: plenty of mask-free rubbing hops between our hands, sniffing, talking and some sneezing when the lupulin powder (the part of the hops with all the yummy-smelling oils) gets up into your nose! Fun fact: even in non-pandemic times, this process involves plenty of hand sanitizer, since alcohol is also one of the best ways to remove hop oils and resins from your hands! 

Needless to say, as harvest approached with Yakima County still in modified Phase 1 of Washington State’s reopening plan, we realized that we would need to do our selection process differently this year at Bale Breaker. Instead of the usual group grab-and-sniff-athon, we developed a scoring system in collaboration with Yakima Chief Hops that we can use for solo evaluation of pre-ground hop samples. A little lonelier than our pre-COVID methods, for sure, but isn’t that the tagline for 2020?

As part of that process, we’ve increased the training for our sensory panel, the group of brewery staff who taste our beer and hops for quality control, recipe development, and new beer descriptions. 

We want to make sure that the folks on our sensory panel are all using the same language (known as “lexicon” in sensory science terms) to describe what they’re smelling. It’s also important that they can identify aromas without any verbal or visual cues, which is harder than it sounds! 

This is because identifying a smell is a two-part process: first, aroma molecules bind onto receptors in your nose and send electrical signals to your brain. Then, your brain has to recognize that particular set of electrical signals and match it to an aroma.

Often, because the parts of the brain that govern memory and smell are so closely related, an aroma will bring up a memory first, especially if that memory has a large emotional charge. Some of the most colorful memories that have come up for our brewery sniffers during this year’s training have been:

To train our sensory panelists for this year’s hop selection, I created a set of pure aroma compounds for almost all of the aromas on the scoring ballot (over 60 of them!). Our panelists have been sniffing those compounds to train their brains to connect each set of electrical signals (stimuli) to an aroma name. Then, we will validate their training by having them sniff 10 random aromas from the set with no verbal cues (blind) and asking them to name each aroma.

Fun fact: one of the few aroma compounds that we didn’t include in our sniff set is “green pepper” or 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine. This aroma has a detection threshold (ability to smell) of around 3 parts per trillion. For reference, that’s around 3 drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. YCH’s sensory lab bought a pure vial of the stuff before they had a supercharged deep freezer – and told us that their lab, clothes, and cars smelled like green pepper for months!

What’s the point of all this sniffing and naming? For us at Bale Breaker to select the highest quality hops that have distinct aroma profiles so that we can make high quality, diverse beers. Each hop plays a specific role in our beer recipes – from the complex berry, dank, and tropical character of Mosaic to the clean fruitiness of Citra. If our Mosaic were to be more like Citra, we would make different and less interesting beers!

Hops change from year to year based on the weather, but we want our beers to be consistent, and to do that, we need consistent and high-quality hops. Luckily, we’ve got some world-class hops just outside our brewery’s roll-up doors, grown right here on our family hop farm.

Posted August 28, 2020

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